Chimp Welfare update

Last time, I described how we plan to use WelfareTrak® to monitor the welfare of chimpanzees at 16 zoos across the United States. Today, I have some updates to share with you.

Since March, care specialists have been busily collecting three 30-minute video observations on our 41 chimpanzee subjects each week, in addition to daily fecal sample collection. That adds up to over 60 hours of video, and 287 fecal samples each week. In total, my hard drive currently holds over 3000 videos recorded so far, and we have over 5000 fecal samples stored in the freezer, with two months of data collection remaining!


Thankfully, I have an excellent team here at Brookfield Zoo helping me. I have several volunteers who continue to dedicate many hours to the project, and others on the Animal Welfare team who are playing important roles.

The volunteers, Catherine, and I use an ‘ethogram,’ or an inventory of defined behaviors, to code what we see the subjects doing in the videos. Some of the behaviors we look for include feeding, grooming, playing, and interacting with enrichment. Observing the chimpanzees’ social interactions unfold is similar to watching the plot twists of a soap opera.


In the endocrinology lab, Jocelyn, Molly, and I are measuring the fecal samples for two hormones: cortisol, which is an indicator of adrenal activity or “stress”, and immunoglobulin-A, which plays an important role in immune function. Therefore, each sample must be weighed into two separate tubes. After we add the right chemicals, we assay the samples to get the results. Looking at the chart of hormonal values, one can see peaks and valleys that correspond to exciting events.


A third component of the research is a weekly WelfareTrak® survey that the care specialists fill out, rating each animal on a scale of never-to-always or poor-to-excellent for various items (e.g. appetite, attitude, interested in enrichment, etc). The goal of the study is to validate this survey by comparing the specialists’ ratings of the subjects, with our observations of the subjects’ behavior and hormones. For example, if a specialist rated a subject as very interested in enrichment and very playful during a week, we can confirm this by watching the videos, and by determining that “stress” hormone levels were low that week. Then we know that subject must really like a certain type of enrichment, and we can better tailor our care to their needs.

I'm presenting preliminary results from this study at the Zoo on the evening of November 17; if you're interested in learning more about how innovative science is being used to improve the welfare of the animals in the care of the AZA, stop by. I hope to see you there!

Dr. Katie Hall
Postdoctoral Fellow

Posted: 10/27/2016 9:35:08 AM by Bryan Todd Oakley

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